Who Is GPS’s Daddy?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 4 2011 2:26 PM

Who Is GPS’s Daddy?

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A woman sets up GPS equipment under a car

Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday, the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation announced separately that they were filing friend-of-the-court briefs in the upcoming Supreme Court case U.S. v Jones, which will decide whether it is unconstitutional for police to use GPS devices to track a suspect’s car without a warrant or permission. The CDT and the EFF both urge the Supreme Court to rule that such use of GPS violates the Fourth Amendment.

The CDT’s brief urges the court to consider the implications of allowing warrantless GPS monitoring, saying, “As receivers shrink in size, it will be possible to install them in a person’s clothing… the government would be able to use the technology to track the movements of large numbers of individuals even more directly and precisely than through the attachment of a GPS receiver to a vehicle.”

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The EFF was joined in its brief by a 90-year-old inventor Roger L. Easton, whom the EFF says in a press release “is considered the father of GPS as the principal inventor and developer of the Timation Satellite Navigation System at the Naval Research Laboratory.” The EFF drops the “considered” in the brief itself, saying plainly, “Roger L. Easton is the father of GPS.”

However, last spring, just months after Easton was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, GPS World magazine argued that Easton shouldn’t be considered the technology’s “father” because his “Timation was fundamentally different enough from GPS.”

Does it matter if Easton was really the father of GPS? Within the technological sphere, it may be debatable, but it seems that the rest of the world, the matter seems settled. Easton’s repudiation of law-enforcement’s warantless use of his technology doesn’t quite rank with J. Robert Oppenheimer regretting the use of nuclear bombs on Japan in World War II. Still, it’s a powerful statement, since we tend to consider creators’ opinions about their technologies as something of a symbolic trump card.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

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